Interview by THOMAS FULLER
New York Times
JUNE 17, 2015
Mahathir Mohamad, who served as prime minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, turns 90 next month. He is forcing his way back into the center of Malaysian politics with a fire hose of criticism for the man he helped install in office, Najib Razak, the current prime minister.
In an interview, Mr. Mahathir lashed out at Mr. Najib for what he described as wastefulness and lavish spending. But he also broached a host of other topics, questioning the tenets of modern democracy and calling for a boycott of Myanmar over its persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority there.
Here are excerpts from the interview.
On the splintering of Malaysian politics:
The reason why Malaysia has managed to remain stable and to grow economically was because there was one big coalition of parties. But now you can see there’s a breakup. What will happen in the next election is that no one will be able to gain a majority. This, of course, leads to instability.
On the current prime minister:
I had always supported Najib. I was in a way instrumental in his becoming prime minister. [But] the apparent disappearance of huge sums of money. This is not good. He has never been able to explain how the money was spent. He wants to leave his own legacy. But what he does is verging on criminal. He’s going to lose in the next election.
On the prime minister’s wife, Rosmah Mansor:
She projects herself too much. Normally, the wife of the prime minister should be in the background supporting the husband.
On Western-style democracy in Asia:
If you look at the history of democracy, initially it was all about the right of the people to choose their own leaders. Since then, we have added more things to democracy. You must have this freedom and that freedom. I know what is wrong about democracy. It is when people interpret it wrongly. And they seem to think that liberty, freedom is absolute. It’s not.
On the use of detention without trial:
Running a country is not just about being nice. Sometimes you have to be nasty to people who have evil intentions.
On a Muslim Malaysian gymnast who was criticized by religious leaders for wearing what they described as a revealing outfit:
I feel that these people are interpreting the religion in the wrong way. The religion is not wrong. It is these people who interpret it to suit their own purpose.
On how to deal with conservative Islamists:
You have to reply to them in the language of the religion. But if you say, ‘This is not constitutionally right,’ it’s not going to work.
On Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya:
This country claims that the Rohingya are not their people. They’ve been there for 800 years, much longer than the Chinese in Malaysia. The atrocities committed are terrible. They killed and burned people, they beat people to death. In this day and age, people should not behave like that. Asean [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] should do something. If necessary, I think I would expel this country. It’s terrible. The whole world should boycott this country.
On the reasons he has turned against his anointed successors three times:
They all looked good to me before they held power, but they don’t seem to manage power. They seem to think that power is to satisfy their own ambition. Power is there to serve the people. It’s not for enriching yourself and living a high life.
On turning 90 next month:
I never thought I would reach 90.